The Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) has developed a safer and more efficient process to provide custom hearing protection for service members using digital-imaging technology. The process will reduce delivery time by at least 50% and is being developed as a solution to the Defense Department’s most reported injury, noise-induced hearing loss. The custom hearing protection will be provided through a digital ear scanner and 3D printing technology, allowing for quick and precise fitting.
Lt. Cmdr. Kyle Shepard, NAWCAD’s resident audiologist and research lead, explained that hearing damage affects at least 10% of the military, and tinnitus and hearing loss are the U.S. military’s first and second most-reported disability. Furthermore, a 2006 NAWCAD study showed that flight deck personnel often don’t insert foam earplugs correctly, leading to high risk for noise-induced hearing damage.
To provide a better solution, NAWCAD’s improved process, using imaging scanners and 3D printers, would quickly fit any service member with custom hearing protection, reducing the risk of hearing damage. Custom earplugs conform to ear anatomy, making them more consistent and offering better attenuation than standard earplugs. Additionally, custom earplugs are an excellent option for aviators and ground crews using internal communication radios underneath helmets or headsets.
The Navy’s current production process for custom hearing protection involves injecting silicone into the ear canal, waiting for it to set, and then carefully extracting the molds, which is tedious and sometimes painful for sailors with irregular ear canals, sensitive ears, or other anatomical challenges. Manufacturers can then take weeks to months to produce and return the earplugs.
The new digital scanner is minimally invasive and makes custom hearing protection more precise, protective, and comfortable because it can image deeper into the ear canal, providing a better fit. Alongside 3D printers, the scanners will enable the Navy to print custom hearing protection in-house.
NAWCAD’s team of engineers has nearly completed a training program to certify users for the 3D scanner, which will make the fitting process available to most medical and safety professionals, including flight physicians, safety officers, and corpsmen. Partner services, including the Army and Air Force, are already interested in scaling custom hearing protection.
Lt. Cmdr. Kyle Shepard and NAWCAD’s aeromedical engineers are ready to support any command interested in offering custom hearing protection to their warfighters today. Interested commands can reach out to Lt. Cmdr. Kyle Shepard at email@example.com.
The Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division employs over 17,000 military, civilian, and contract personnel, operating test ranges, laboratories, and aircraft in support of test, evaluation, research, development, and sustainment of everything flown by the Navy and Marine Corps. Based in Patuxent River, Maryland, the command also has major sites in St. Inigoes, Maryland, Lakehurst, New Jersey, and Orlando, Florida.